Topsy the elephant was a member of the performing elephant herd of the Forepaugh Circus for the majority of her life. The victim of excessive mistreatment at the hands of her handlers, she cultivated a reputation for rampaging and lashing back at those who tried to hurt or corral her. According to some sources, she also killed up to three people during her excited episodes.
Her handlers originally planned to hang her for her behavior – and charge admission for civilians to witness the event – but the SPCA prevented this method, claiming it was too inhumane. Instead, on January 4, 1903, Topsy was executed on Coney Island via electric shock. Since such a feat had never before been attempted on an elephant, the event drew a sizable crowd to the newly opened Luna Park.
Topsy perished about a decade after infamous historical enemies Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla clashed in the War of the Currents – a scientific battle to prove the viability of alternate versus direct electrical currents. Edison strongly believed alternating current electricity to be more dangerous, though he had lost the argument to Tesla. For his part, Edison is indelibly linked to the event because, in a newspaper at the time, his electricity company, the "Edison Company," was credited with providing the electricity for Topsy's execution. Though the company did bear this name, Thomas Edison had nothing to do with its founding or management.
The spectacle of Topsy's execution lost momentum soon after it occurred, but, because a film of the event still exists today, she has returned to the public consciousness as a symbol of how to respect and care for animals properly.
A graphic video of Topsy's execution is included below. Viewer discretion is advised.
Topsy led a typical life for a circus elephant in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, consisting of substantial mistreatment and neglect. In addition to her trainer plunging a pitchfork into her side, a circus follower threw a lit cigar into Topsy's mouth, prompting her to trample him.
After the incident, Topsy was considered an inconvenience and liability for her owners; thus, she was made the subject of a study on alternating current electricity. Although Thomas Edison had already lost the "War of the Currents," this display may have been a method through which he could prove his research to those who believed the War of the Currents to be ongoing.
Because a mammal of Topsy's size had never been killed by electrocution before, Topsy's executioners took extra precautions to ensure her demise: they strapped her feet into copper sandals to conduct the electric current, and they fed her poisoned carrots.
Around 6,600 volts coursed through her body, creating small blue flames and smoke. The current was turned off after 10 seconds. Despite her dangerous reputation, Topsy was completely docile throughout the incident. According to one report, "The wires were dragged over. Topsy immediately complied when she was instructed to raise her right foot for the first ... sandal. 'Not so vicious,' a reporter remarked aloud."
The identity of the specific person who filmed Topsy's execution remains a mystery. The SPCA and Edison Electric Illuminating Co. both contributed to the event, but no actual proof exists that would indicate Edison's presence.
Many sites claim that he not only filmed but also personally orchestrated her slaughter, though historians agree that this information is fallacious. Rutgers University suggests that a film crew representing the Edison Electric Illuminating Co. most likely filmed the video.
Some estimates report that 1,500 spectators attended Topsy's execution. At that time, such an event was a major curiosity for the general public. Today, however, people are looking back on the event as "a bit of a shameful moment in Coney Island's history," as stated by The Economist.
In 2003, one century after her death, a memorial for Topsy was unveiled at the Coney Island Museum commemorating not only her life and death, but also her contributions – albeit unwitting – to the scientific community of the time.